Thursday, 28 May 2009


We all have them. Forms of entertainment that we know should be a little low-brow for our taste. But we enjoy them anyway. Except … you know what? If there’s one type of person that I’ve really come to hate, it’s the type who only ever reads, watches, listens to serious stuff, and then waves all that around as a symbol of how smart he is. How dumb does a person have to be not to recognise the value of straightforward fun?

On the book front, in my case, I’ve read almost every single one of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise novels, and enjoyed them thoroughly. To give O’Donnell proper credit, they’re a good sight better written and characterised than you’d suppose.

And in TV terms, it’s Alias. And US visitors to this blog are going to have to bear with me a few moments, because the fact is it’s a show that’s barely known in the UK. It got broadcast on Sky, but back in the day when a lot of people didn’t own a satellite dish. As for terrestrial TV, it was so incredibly badly scheduled (always late, at wildly different times) that it never picked up an audience. But in North America, the show ran five seasons, from 2001 to 2006, and was so wildly popular that its guest stars included Christian Slater, Isabella Rossellini, Quentin Tarantino, Joel Grey, Ethan Hawke, Faye Dunaway, Richard Roundtree, Rutger Hauer, and our own John Hannah and (in a straight bad-guy role) Ricky Gervais. And this was well before the day when movie people began emigrating to TV en masse.

At face value, Alias looks just about as daft as it gets. A James Bond style female secret agent gets done up in a new disguise, whizzes around on wires, kung-fu kicks some bad people, and saves the day every week. But -- rather like the equally daft-sounding Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- the show had a lot more going on than that.

Razor sharp scripts. A superb cast led by the award-winning Jennifer Garner (pictured) and added to regularly by Lena Olin (a terrific actress Hollywood never made enough use of). The male side of the line-up ranged from young turks like Michael Vartan and David Anders to distinguished older thesps such as Victor Garber and the incredible Ron Rifkin.

And -- like Buffy -- once you get past the high-kicks and high jinks, Alias has a deeply human side. You find yourself becoming drawn into the interplay between the characters, and a pretty mesmerising bunch they are. Carl Lumbly’s brooding black giant. Kevin Weisman’s burbling, bumbling übernerd. Rifkin as Arvin Sloane -- only a TV show be damned -- is one of the most complex and fascinating villains who has ever been created in a work of fiction. And Garber’s emotionally distant Jack Bristow is a masterpiece of multi-layered subtlety and understatement.

What I love about the show, as well, is the way it doesn’t recognise the usual limits. It pushes over into science fiction sometimes, as do other spy series. But, by way of the Rambaldi section of the plot, it pushes across into the realms of the supernatural as well, and I’ve rarely seen that done before. If you’re going to have fun, why not have really BIG fun? Go the whole nine yards? This was back in the day when the word ‘entertainment’ referred to something more intelligent than a bunch of slapstick and action sequences heaped together with no rhyme or reason … I’ve just stumbled back from the latest Star Trek wondering what on earth the fuss was all about. I won’t be going to see the sequel of that movie. But I’m just finishing up watching my Alias box set for the fourth time. And it won’t be the last.

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